Edna Jackson Wins Savannah Mayor’s Race

As I mentioned yesterday, none of us here have been close enough to the Savannah Mayor’s race to add credible commentary. Thus, I’ve asked Bill Dawers to provide us the following guest post. Thank’s Bill for the assist.

After a long, contentious campaign, Savannah has a new mayor. Edna Jackson — a 67-year old former Savannah State University administrator who has served three terms in an at-large position on city council — took 56.1% of the vote in Tuesday’s runoff against Jeff Felser, a 49-year old attorney who has held the other at-large council seat for eight years. Jackson will take office in January.

As the Savannah Morning News suggests this morning, Jackson’s winning personality might have trumped some voters’ desires for change.

A year or so ago, Jackson seemed the heir apparent to two-term Mayor Otis Johnson. But a racially divisive City Manager search — in which Johnson made plain is support for a black candidate — sowed a lot of anger around town. That issue was compounded by others, including violations of the state open meetings law in the city manager search process, a $20 million judgment against the city over soil conditions in the Ellis Square renewal project, debt that will have to be repaid for a tax allocation district at the failed Savannah River Landing site just east of downtown, a questionable choice to award flood damages to a sitting alderwoman, and several dubious purchases of land for major infrastructure projects.

The combination of issues crowded the mayoral field. Felser stepped away from his aldermanic seat, which likely would have been secure if he had run for it again. Former Mayor Floyd Adams (who himself gave up a seat on the school board), former state lawmaker Regina Thomas, former alderman Ellis Cook, and James Dewberry also entered the race, all but assuring that no one would get a majority of votes on the November ballot.

From that race, Jackson emerged with 36.6% to Felser’s 23.5%. The margin was 2,850 votes. It was a tall order for Felser to make up that many votes. But he did make up a little ground: 2,362 votes separated the two candidates yesterday as Jackson’s edge over Felser slipped from 13.1% in November to 12.2% yesterday. Savannah’s city elections are officially non-partisan. Both Felser and Jackson are Democrats.

21,749 Savannahians voted in the mayoral race in November, and 19,466 returned to the polls on Tuesday. Once the results are made official, turnout will be close to 30%.

Since Savannah is a majority black city, the demographics were in Jackson’s favor, but I think many commentators have consistently overstated the role of race. I have written about this often, including in a blog post last night. I know many white voters who supported Jackson, and she was endorsed by the Savannah Morning News and by one of the Savannah area’s most recognized Republicans — former gubernatorial candidate Eric Johnson. Jackson was also endorsed by the Savannah Area Business Political Action Committee, which has very close ties with the Chamber of Commerce.

Without a clear candidate to support in terms of ideology, many conservative and Republican voters seemed to think that Jackson’s image as a consensus builder was intact, despite her inability to stem the recent political divisions on council.

Still, there were many voters who were crying “more of the same” anytime Jackson’s name came up. Some of these comments were racially charged. Things got particularly ugly at times on Facebook and in the readers’ comments at the Savannah Morning News.

Jackson remained largely above the fray and did not attack Felser or her other opponents. It was a classic frontrunner strategy, and it worked.

While Jackson was picking up 56.1% of the vote in the mayoral runoff, former state lawmaker Tom Bordeaux won 57.1% in the runoff for the remaining at-large city council seat. He defeated game challenger Clinton Young, who was a decided underdog in the race.

Bill Dawers has been a freelance columnist for the Savannah Morning News for over a decade and blogs at Savannah Unplugged. He is an English and journalism instructor at Armstrong Atlantic State University.